Every summer, the five of us fill the minivan with snacks, books, and a rat terrier, hitch a pop-up trailer to the back, and drive across the country. We started when my son was three weeks old. This fall, he’s entering second grade.
People ask why we don’t fly. For the money we would spend on plane tickets to visit our family in southern California, we can afford to take a month to explore national parks, eat Subway in scorching tumbleweed towns, and see our relatives. We set aside money each month so that when my kids and math-teacher husband get out of school in June, we take off—sometimes just moments after the last bus of the year pulls up.
Five thousand miles. Twenty-five days. A dozen states. Of course, a trip on this scale presents its harrowing moments. A few years ago, we got a flat tire on the interstate outside Green River, Utah. We couldn’t find a jack and had lost all cellular service to the mountains, so we waved our arms till someone stopped. He helped us change our tire. He didn’t murder us. We paid him with a ziplock bag of homemade trail mix.
Once, at Great Basin National Park, my daughter had to take a pee break on a remote trail among the bristlecone pines, the oldest living things in the world. As she crouched behind a rock, the wind picked up her underwear, blowing it beyond the great, glacial unknown.
My husband has gotten lost on hikes with leaking water bottles. We have boiled the brakes at ten thousand feet, dealt with an exploding diaper after our infant son ate an entire burrito from Taco Time, lain awake as condensation on the trailer ceiling dripped onto our faces, earned traffic tickets in various states, and, yes, been forced to burn Goosebumps books in the Colorado wild when running out of firewood.
But this summer glittered with lovely moments. We swam at the foot of Yosemite Falls, climbed ladders through cliff dwellings, watched the sun sink into the Grand Canyon, and hugged (tiny portions of) sequoias. I even took a selfie with a well-preserved two-headed calf. Once with family in southern California, our kids splashed in the Pacific, consorted with rehabilitated parrots in the desert, consumed pounds of sugar provided by grandparents, and played video games with cousins until their bodies took on Minecraft shapes. I walked in the Rossmoor Center, the layout almost unrecognizable since I graduated from high school in 1990, with my high school friend. I caught myself staring into palm trees as if I’d never seen them before. Did I really grow up here? Am I the same person now? How is my mother 79?
By the time we started to head eastward, we were ready to get home, even skipping a night at Lake Tahoe. We got as far as Ely, Nevada, and decided to call it day. The only available campsite in the area, however, was literally in the parking lot of a casino.
I hate casinos with a rabid, mouth-foaming passion. I’m not bothered by the noise and flashing lights as much as the manufactured desperation of people pressing buttons in smoky rooms twenty-hours a day, looking for a sliver of a reason to live. Maybe I hate those rooms because I see a bit of myself in front of those slot machines, someone who could have easily been wound into those spinning shapes, safe but by a thread of grace.
My kids and husband ran for the casino pool, but I had to stay back to do laundry. Had to. I missed home’s opportunities to take refuge in unoccupied rooms and yards after 21 days of sleeping, driving, and walking within inches of four other people. I was snapping at my kids, who had just thrown their dirty socks and strawberry stems on the camper floor. I was tired of nagging but also tired of playing the role of the magic behind the disappearing mess. However, I would gladly receive the opportunity to play the role of laundress in solitude this night.
I dragged a giant trash bag of laundry across the parking lot to the casino hotel until stopped by sprinklers blasting across the path to the back door by the laundry. So I slung the ripping bag over my shoulder and proceeded to the grand entrance. I trudged past an array of cowboy, showgirl and sphinx statues in the foyer, passed the bar and bleeping gaming machines, and entered a hallway painted with a mural of strapping, scantily clad miners.
I loved the dank aloneness of the laundry room, the single sock left over from a mystery traveler, the tufts of lint in the corners. I filled the three washers and listened to the water swish quietly over miles of sandstone dust in our clothes. I updated Facebook. Read a few pages. Stared into beige-walled nothing.
With so many clothes, I had to dry in shifts. Some items I had to handle by hand. I went back out to the van and carefully arranged my older daughter’s damp, delicate lacy and fringed tops (her only hiking wear) across the seats. It was 10 p.m., but a warm breeze blew by, whistling through a kitschy wagon wheel in the parking lot.
This was peace, the scent of OxiClean wafting from the towels, the seemingly endless motion of folding my son’s shorts (how many does he wear each day?) into small halves, matching one cargo pocket to the next. The texture of my husband’s ribbed socks felt crisp and certain in my hands. This was the break I needed: quiet and lonely mundaneness with pieces of my family still surrounding me.
I went back to the casino and put another load in the dryer. Six quarters in the slots, the clink of money going down. I exhaled as the machine began its warm, satisfying rumble. I had won the jackpot.
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